Interview: Eva Schloss, Anne Frank’s step-sister

Eva Schloss. Picture: Jayne Emsley
Eva Schloss. Picture: Jayne Emsley
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Growing up as the step-sister of the Holocaust’s best known victim wasn’t easy, Eva Schloss tells Lee Randall

Ken Livingstone changed Eva Schloss’s life. It was February 1986, and the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam had brought its popular touring exhibition about the diarist’s life and legacy to London. An invitation was extended, asking Eva to speak at the opening: her mother, Fritzi, had married Otto Frank in 1953, and throughout their long marriage, worked tirelessly alongside him to publicise Anne’s story around the world.

Eva had never told her own daughters about her harrowing past, nor had she and her mother discussed their shared experience of internment in Auschwitz. Her life was effectively defined by not talking about the past. During the nearly 40 years she’d lived in London, she’d raised three daughters and was, by the 1980s, running a successful antiques business. But, she writes, “a large piece of me was missing. I was not myself, and the outgoing girl who once rode her bike … and never stopped chattering was locked away somewhere I couldn’t reach.”

On the night she overcame her nerves and spoke at length – once she started, she couldn’t stop. She described her happy, close-knit family, living in a flat across the square at Merwedeplein from the Franks, and her short friendship with the vivacious Anne. She spoke of the bleak, brutal reality of life inside Auschwitz. She described the pain of losing her father and older brother, and the difficulties of resuming “normal” life after the war.

In softly accented cadences that retain their second-language syntax, she tells me: “Until then I had no confidence in myself. I was very shy. I grew up in Austria and by the time I was nine years old, people said, ‘As a Jew you are nothing, you should be killed, you have no right to live.’ You lose all your confidence. Then, with the camp, and afterwards … I wasn’t happy with who I was. I had no help to get my own character back, that’s why it took so long. I thought I was put on the spot by Ken Livingstone, but it really changed my life. And I was already 60!”

Eva’s voice belies her years – she was captured by the Nazis on her 15th birthday, 11 May, 1944 – and also her experiences. There is no rancour, and a warm, “such is life” chuckle underscores much of what she says. That alone is remarkable – but of course, her story is more remarkable still. She has written other memoirs, but the newest, After Auschwitz, makes it clear just what an achievement it was starting over again, when survivors were not only economically and physically depleted, but emotionally devastated, too. The memoir also looks at her mixed emotions about her mother’s extremely happy second marriage, and what it was like living with the ever-more-popular ghost of her posthumous step-sister.

Her parents Erich and Elfriede – always Fritzi -- Geiringer were assimilated Viennese Jews living a cosmopolitan life in the years following the First World War. They were stylish and in love, though that didn’t preclude extra-marital affairs. “That was the society in the Twenties. If you had a little fling with somebody else that didn’t seem to matter. After the war people let down their inhibitions and wanted to live it up,” says their daughter, and I think I can hear her shrugging.

The night the Nazis arrived in Vienna was terrifying. Their persecution of the Jews began immediately. In 1938 the Geiringers fled. Her father and brother, Heinz, went to Holland, while Eva and her mother went to Belgium, until their Dutch paperwork could be organised. The family appealed for permission to emigrate to Australia, but were refused a visa. It was 1940 before they were reunited in Amsterdam, and two happy years ensued, even though from the 15 May, they lived under Nazi occupation.

Eva did not know the Anne familiar to readers of her diary. Her Anne was not “the soulful writer with sensitivities and depths”. Though a month younger than Eva, Anne seemed much older. “She was always immaculate in blouses and skirts with white socks and shiny patent shoes.” She was a charismatic chatterbox, and, writes Eva, “under normal circumstances my friendship with Anne would probably have been a passing acquaintance”. It was actually Otto who treated her with special kindness, reverting to German when he realised that Eva hadn’t yet mastered Dutch.

Eva is candid about her mixed feelings concerning Otto and Fritzi’s marriage. Initially she couldn’t understand how her mother could remarry, if she’d truly loved Erich. So it must have been a double blow, when the care and feeding of the Anne Frank industry became so central to her mother’s life. Did she resent it?

“Yes, definitely. But you know, she loved Otto so much – they both loved each other so much. I also loved Otto and he helped me a lot. I thought, I can’t be jealous of somebody who hasn’t got a life, like Anne. They had a wonderful relationship and did everything together – they were inseparable. That was of course very lovely, and she loved helping him. So I understood. I accepted it eventually.”

He sounds like a lovely, kind, and gentle man. “Oh yes, he was. For him, the children were everything. He had a cousin living in England and when the war started, in 1939, she wrote and said, send the children over and we’ll look after them. He considered that with his wife, and then wrote back, ‘Thank you very much but life without our children would be meaningless so we’ll keep them with us.’ Afterwards he said very often, ‘If only I hadn’t been so selfish’.”

Through her books, her work with the Anne Frank Trust in London, involving many speaking engagements – especially in schools and prisons – Eva has devoted the past two decades to spreading the word and keeping memories of the Holocaust alive in people’s awareness.

“I do it because people want to know. After the war, at the time when I wanted to talk about it, nobody wanted to hear. But now, there is a need, people really want to learn about the mistakes that have been made, and how it could have happened. You know, we won’t be around much longer, and it’s very important to hear it from people who went through it. A film is not the same and very often they are not correct. We really tell the facts, and this is really important. There should be no exaggeration or things made up. Like in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: it’s very beautiful and very moving, but it could never have happened how they show it. Don’t forget we were filthy, full of germs. There’s the little boy and the doctor brings him into the house to serve at the table. They wouldn’t come near us. And the idea that you could dig a hole under that electrified barbed wire, that you could just sit there – it’s completely idiotic! ”

The great crime is that “The Holocaust could have been avoided if countries would have let Jewish people in. That was the crime of all the nations. They closed their gates. America even put the quotas lower than before. There was still anti-Semitism. Then because people felt guilty, they didn’t want to hear about it. But the new generation does not have to be guilty, it was nothing to do with them, so they want to really know.”

When Eva and her mother returned to Amsterdam after Auschwitz minus half the family, “it was so painful. We wanted to try to put a brave face on it. Thinking back, this is my one very, very bad regret, that I never talked to my mother about how we really felt. It might have made our lives much easier. It was a subject we didn’t dare to touch.”

Did Fritzi perhaps find solace in discussing the war with Otto? “No. Because after Otto died she said, ‘You know, I never asked how he really survived in the camp. What happened to him.’ They did not speak of their mutual losses. At the time, especially in Europe, there was no counselling. You thought if you don’t talk about it you can more easily forget about it. But it’s the opposite, actually.”

Eva writes about the role of luck, but there was something else, something in her nature that held fast to life. Where does she think that came from? “My brother, when he was 12, was very afraid of dying, like many people are. One day he asked my father, ‘What will happen when I die?’ And my father said, ‘When you have children you will live on in your children. Your body will die, but the chain will continue.’ And this 12-year-old boy said, ‘Well what if I die before I have had any children?’ My father said, ‘I promise you that everything you’ve done in your life, somebody will remember something. Nothing gets lost. We are all linked in a big chain which goes from generation to generation. You will not be forgotten.’

“I remembered this very clearly in the camp. I thought, ‘Well, I haven’t done anything yet, and when I die I will be completely forgotten. I have to survive so that I can do something. Everybody’s afraid of dying, especially in such a horrible way, so I really held on to life and felt, ‘I must get through this. Don’t give up. I must have a family. I must do something in life.’”

Among other things, she was able to rescue her brother’s paintings and exhibit them. “Exactly. There is a play as well, And Then They Came For Me, that is mainly about my family, really, and it’s performed all over the world. It’s painful for me to see my brother and my father on stage, but I say to the audience, ‘You have seen my brother, so remember him.’ This is, for me, very important. Anne says in her diary as well, ‘When I die I would like to live on.’ And she does. She has become immortal. We can’t expect more from this life on Earth, than that somebody will remember you and that you haven’t lived for nothing.”

• After Auschwitz, My Memories of Otto and Anne Frank, A Story of Survival, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20.